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Red Butte oil spill cleanup continues

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SALT LAKE CITY — The skimming, pumping and recapture of thousands of gallons of sticky crude oil are set to continue Monday along a hard-hit stretch of Red Butte Creek and the petroleum-polluted waters of the pond at Liberty Park.

While Saturday's leak from the Chevron pipeline in Emigration Canyon has been capped, the hard work left by the spilled oil will continue on Day 3 of the cleanup and beyond — a process that will likely take weeks.

It will be longer than that before the oil's effects are wiped from the riparian corridor, which before the spill had been the focus of an intensive public outreach for rehabilitation, coordinated through Salt Lake City and the county.

Those grand plans are now on hold even before work begins, as the proposed two-year corridor study of the once pristine waterway gives way to repairing the damage from Saturday's oil leak.

"The hardest hit area of the creek was from Red Butte Garden down to Liberty Park," said state wildlife conservation officer Mike Roach. Both Red Butte and Emigration creeks flow out of the mountains into the Liberty Park pond and then continue out to the Jordan River.

"We have looked downstream below Liberty Park and the impact has been minimal and very manageable," Roach said.

Chevron workers, Salt Lake City firefighters and pipeline inspectors from the U.S. Department of Transportation continue to combat the mess, and a more thorough emergency response plan was due to be put into action Sunday night.

"We have about 60 to 70 people working in various stages to try to capture the oil," said Chevron spokesman Dan Johnson.

Chevron said it is sending the damaged pipe to engineers to determine what went wrong.

A public meeting is set for 7 p.m. today at Clayton Middle School, 1470 S. 1900 East. City and Chevron representatives will address questions and concerns, and share the most recent update.

A weekend interrupted

The fracture of the company's 10-inch diameter pipeline was noticed early Saturday after employees at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Administration Hospital reported smelling petroleum fumes. Johnson refuted information distributed by city officials that sensors first detected a problem on Friday night.

"We found out about the release of oil when the fire department notified us Saturday morning," Johnson said.

After emergency officials were notified, the flow of crude oil was shut off seven miles up Emigration Canyon from the breach.

By then, hundreds of barrels of medium crude oil had flooded Red Butte Creek, forcing closure of that canyon and Liberty Park, where the pond was soon awash in oil.

All of the spilled oil at the leak site has been cleaned up, Chevron maintenance worker Ralph Gunter said, and crews installed a cofferdam with pipes taking clean water from the bottom of Red Butte Creek over a temporary barrier to keep the creek flowing.

"We're not impacting the environment any longer with crude coming from the pipe," Gunter said.

The city has had people stationed along the Jordan River to monitor for seepage.

Additional absorbent booms were laid across the river Sunday between 900 South and 500 North, said Royal DeLegge, environmental health director for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. He said there was no indication oil had reached the Great Salt Lake.

DeLegge said there's not as much oil in the water as it appears because it spreads out thinly on the surface. "Even a little bit of oil covers an immense surface area," he said.

But even after the oil is skimmed off, it will still be a huge job to clean rocks and plants covered in what is an extra-sticky kind of crude. Officials are not even sure how best to do that. "That's still being worked out," DeLegge said.

State Division of Water Quality monitors were continuing to take samples at various points along the creek and at the river to determine the extent of the contamination.

Results of that sampling won't be known, however, until today or possibly later, after a laboratory analysis.

City officials are continuing to warn residents against trying to tackle any of the oil that may have seeped onto their property because of the potential health hazards. Instead, they should call the Chevron claim line at 1-866-752-6340 for help. Johnson said the company had already assisted several residents with property impacted along the banks of the creek.

"We feel as bad as anyone about this," Johnson said. "We'd rather be focused on other aspects of our business."

A year ago the Chevron pipeline company was fined $15,000 for allowing 30 days to lapse from the time it noticed an "immediate repair condition" on the same pipeline in the Hanna, Duchesne County, segment until the time it reduced operating pressure of the pipeline.

The penalty stemmed from a fall 2002 incident, and although Chevron responded with a copy of its immediate repair procedures, documents show it did not ultimately dispute the allegation.

Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker said the city will conduct its own investigation on Saturday's spill and not rely on Chevron to determine the cause of the rupture and to ensure cleanup is thorough.

"We need to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, because it is tragic when something like this happens," Becker said. "We have to do everything we can to remedy it, and we have got to be sure something like this is preventable."

Environmental fallout

Roach said close to 300 birds — mostly Canada geese — were coated in the thick sludge and taken to Hogle Zoo and other facilities for cleansing.

By the end of the day, Roach said, four ducklings and one gosling had died due to the oil spill.

"The younger animals are not as strong. There is a lot of toxicity in the oil, and as they preen their feathers they are ingesting it and (it) just becomes too overwhelming."

Rehabilitation of the animals has been a multi-pronged effort among the state agency, Hogle Zoo, which is housing the damaged birds, and Tracy Aviary, as well as local animal control officers.

Ironically, the state had previously planned a Sunday roundup of the geese that prefer to hang out at Liberty Park and do not migrate. The birds are routinely captured and then transplanted elsewhere in Utah.

"They were already slated to be removed," Roach said. "The oil spill came a day too soon; otherwise these poor geese would not have had to have gone through this."

Coping with the spill

As birds were cleaned using dishwashing detergent, workers were busy at the Miller Bird Refuge and Nature Park at 1500 East near 1050 South. Chevron cleanup crews worked all night Saturday and into Sunday catching the crude between absorbent booms just in front of a tunnel where the creek goes underground. The oil was then pumped into nearby tanker trucks.

"(The water) is getting clearer all the time, but there's still stuff coming down," one worker said.

The stench of oil hung in the air throughout the Harvard-Yale area, but nowhere stronger than at Liberty Park, where a dark layer of oil was still visible on the pond's surface.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com; pkoepp@desnews.com